Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

The Worth of a Man

September 1, 2017

I met Michael Navin when I was assigned as his “coach” at the Redwood Gospel Mission in Santa Rosa, California. That meant meeting with him weekly to talk about his progress in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called New Life. Michael was older than most, already in his sixties. He was short, slight and graying, and extremely quiet. Most of the time we met in the copy room, squeezed in next to boxes and office machines.

It was hard to get much information from Michael. He was depressed, and he had reasons to be. He had already been in New Life for over a year, in what is meant to be a 10-month program. To graduate, you have to jump through some hoops, including reciting several memorized passages from the Bible. Every time I raised the question of graduation, Michael said, without elaboration, that he wasn’t ready. That seemed to mean that he couldn’t memorize anything. His brain was fuzzy, and nothing would stick.

Occasionally somebody on staff would ask me about Michael. There was a sense that he was taking up space that somebody else could use to gain sobriety. Nobody pushed Michael, however, and he wasn’t easy to push. He had that gift of silent stubbornness you may remember from Melville’s story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He didn’t explain or elaborate. He just said, repeatedly, that he wasn’t ready.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was terrified. And why not? What can a man do in his sixties, who has no obvious skills, who is extremely reticent, who has no money, and whose resume for the past year shows that he has been in an alcohol and drug rehab run by a gospel mission? So long as he could stay at the mission, he was safe. If he graduated, his prospects were dire. Michael saw no chance of employment. He did not want to sleep on the sidewalk.

As I got to know him better, I learned that Michael had gone to UCLA on a golf scholarship and played for several years on the PGA tour. Later he worked as a manager overseeing several liquor stores. He had previously been through a long residential program with the Salvation Army, and afterwards had been sober for years. He came from a very strong Christian family, and he was very loyal to and appreciative of his church. Not only did he attend every Sunday, he went to a men’s Bible study. People there knew him well.

Michael had a lot going for him: family, church, education. He was a steady worker. He just couldn’t stay sober.

Then a close friend of mine, Jim Bankson, offered Michael work scanning documents. It paid minimum wage, and most of the men at the mission wouldn’t have lasted a day at it. The tedium would kill them. But I had watched Michael doing the laundry every day. Sheets and towels for thirty guests, plus the regular laundry of the men in New Life–that meant a lot of tedium, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. He kept at it, day after day, and I knew if he could do that, he could feed documents into a scanner.

That job changed Michael’s life. He managed to graduate and after an initial period of adjustment settled down into eight hours a day of scanning. He could listen to his beloved San Francisco Giants on the radio while he worked. He walked a mile to work from the halfway house he moved into. The exercise did him good. His paycheck wasn’t much, but he didn’t have many expenses, either. He was visibly more confident, more communicative and more hopeful.

That went on for a couple of years. After Michael’s mother died in Florida he got a small inheritance that enabled him to buy a used car. We had lunch every week or two, and he wanted to treat me. He became a volunteer driver for a gospel mission program that took homeless people to eat and sleep in local churches. It meant being on the road before 6:00 every morning, but Michael was happy doing it. He was very appreciative of what people had done for him, and he wanted to return the favor.

Then, without warning, he stopped returning my calls. He canceled our lunch plans several times. The halfway house he’d been living in was closing, and Michael wasn’t sure where he could live. He was out of sorts. Jim called me; he was worried.

Michael called me from the hospital. He’d taken a fall and broken his hip. In the fall his phone was damaged; for some reason, my phone number was the only one that survived in the phone’s memory. He sounded quite disoriented. I later found out that he’d been living in a cheap motel that rented rooms by the week. He’d been going to bars because he was lonely and he wanted to meet women. Eventually he fell down drunk outside his motel room, crawled inside, and lay on the floor for three days before he was discovered and taken by ambulance to the hospital. He’d been drinking the whole time, on the floor, to numb the pain.

Fortunately, because of his job, he had health insurance. The doctors operated and he was transferred to a rehab facility. I visited him several times and we talked about what had gone wrong. He regained his cheerfulness and seemed hopeful that he could recover, though he was worried about where he would live. A cousin was working on finding a place. Jim let Michael know that he could come back to work whenever he was physically able. Michael was working at getting out of his wheelchair and learning to navigate life with a walker. His situation seemed hopeful.

Next thing I knew he was dead. His body was discovered in another motel, where he’d evidently drunk himself to death. He’s moved in after leaving another halfway house. He wasn’t in the motel too many days before a clerk tried to rouse him and then called 911.

Michael’s death shook me. It seemed like a terrible waste and a complete failure, and from a certain perspective it was. It didn’t have to end that way. He was given a good chance. People were cheering for him. But somehow he couldn’t manage it. Alcohol and loneliness apparently had too tight a grip on his soul.

As time has passed–six months now–I’ve found my view changing. People have highs and lows, victories and defeats. Michael ended on a very low note, but maybe that’s just an accident of when the music stopped. His death certainly shadows the rest of his life, but it isn’t the final summation.

When I think of him, I remember his little wistful smile, as though he knew a secret joke. I remember his unassuming manner, how humbly he let people into his life. There was good reason why people liked Michael, and why such a surprising number appeared at his memorial service. In all his struggles, he wanted to do right, and your heart went out to him.

Michael’s faith was genuine, if faltering, and I have no doubt that I will see him in the renewal. He was my friend; and so he will be.




April 14, 2015

Today I had a conversation with a friend about somebody he loves very much. She is struggling with herself and that makes her difficult to live with. He wants—for his own sake as well as hers—for her to snap out of it. He doesn’t understand why she continues to make bad decisions. She knows what she ought to do—why doesn’t she do it?

He is a recovering addict, so he knows addiction very well. Nevertheless I had to spell it out to him: sin is an addiction.

Like addictive substances, it has a short-term appeal. It meets a need. It may even make us temporarily happy. But of course, the long-term is very destructive. As with heroin, so with sin.

Also as with heroin, we may know perfectly well what we ought to do, but the pull of addiction is too strong for us. We are all perpetrators, but we are also all victims.

How Much Drive is Enough? How Much Drive Is Too Much?

March 19, 2015

Last week I saw two excellent movies on back to back evenings: Whiplash, and McFarland, USA. They could not be more different. McFarland is a terrifically warm, feel-good movie, and you’re never in doubt that you’re headed for a happy ending. Whiplash makes you nervous from beginning to end, and you’re not sure of its direction even when it’s over. It’s the most intellectually stimulating movie I’ve seen in a long time, something nobody would say about McFarland.

Yet both movies probe the same question: how much motivation do you need to succeed in life, and is there a point where it’s self-destructive?

McFarland is about a small central valley picker town, and a group of Mexican kids dragged out of themselves by the semi-desperate leadership of a failed football coach who is reduced to cross-country. The kids aren’t sure there’s any future for them, apart from the same farm labor their parents do. Cross-country helps them find their competitive spirit. They are used to hard work, and when they are motivated toward a goal, great things are accomplished. They win the state title.

The message is: those kids need something to motivate them. A loser coach and a loser sport do the trick. Yeah, it’s a sports movie. I loved it. (It doesn’t hurt that all my kids ran cross-country.)

Incidentally, in my county some anonymous donors have been buying tickets for local kids, a nice gesture meant, I assume, to motivate them. (Maybe it’s a cross-country coach.)

Whiplash is about a middle-class kid with lots going for him. He has a loving father and a caring girlfriend, and he’s been admitted to the best music school in America. But he’s fiercely competitive—he practices drums until his hands bleed—and he’s eaten alive by an abusive teacher who’s trying to produce the next Charley Parker. The kid knows that Charley Parker died in drug-induced squalor, but he buys the program—he’ll happily die in his own snot if he reaches jazz nirvana and plays on that level. His teacher eggs him on, torments him, verbally and physically abuses him. Through much of the movie you feel sorry for the kid, and you hope the teacher gets what’s coming to him, but in the end you realize that the kid is drawn to the teacher like a moth to a flame. He wants success so much that he invites abuse—anything for motivation.

(Incidentally, when I asked my son the Olympic rower about the movie, he said that the teacher didn’t seem that bad to him. Which says something about Olympic training, I think.)

I think everybody would agree that we need motivation. Inspiring teachers and coaches and parents supply it. And abusive ones, too. How much is enough? How much is too much? This is a constant question in parenting—especially since, in the modern era, teachers and coaches have little opportunity for abuse. But parents? Lots of wiggle room. Will we be Tiger parents? Or will we be affirming parents? Will we raise ultra-successful neurotics? Or will we raise happy slackers?

I never had an abusive boss or teacher, my parents were of the hands-off, encouraging type who thought I did just fine, and I think I turned out okay. I’m not exactly a slacker. However, I’m not very driven, either, at least compared to some whom I know well. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have accomplished more with a more driven approach. It wasn’t naturally in me, but maybe it could have been pounded into me. Whiplash suggests that without somebody to pound it into you, you’ll never be the next Charley Parker. Maybe so. Do you want to be?

The Case Against Assisted Suicide

February 4, 2015

We are once again experiencing a wave of heartfelt appeals for assisted suicide. Two reasons for it are usually cited. One is that a prolonged death is painful and horrifying; the other that a person’s individual autonomy includes the right to choose when to die.

Against the first reason stands hospice, which enlists both medical science and personal compassion to ensure that death is not painful or horrifying. Many people have awful ideas about the process of dying, but hospice is extraordinarily effective in alleviating suffering and indeed encouraging a sense of meaningful care. Nobody has to have a dreadful death. On the contrary, as many, many families who have relied on hospice can testify, my own included.

Take that fear away, and the argument is really about suicide. Is it an acceptable option? Should each individual choose whether to go on living at any moment?

One strong argument against assisted suicide is the “assisted” part. It is impossible to be sure that relatives, doctors or friends are not giving a sad and frightened person a little push; not just assisting but enabling. There exist many reasons why those closest to the concerned person may want to get on with it—financial reasons, emotional reasons. None of those should be reasons to end a life, but under what regime of safeguards can we be sure they are not in fact the true underlying motives? Older people are often obsessed with “not being a burden.” It might not take more than a slight suggestion, a mere tone of voice, to convince them that they would be less of a burden if they put an end to themselves.

But suppose you hedged in the act of assisted suicide with laws that made it unlikely for such suggestions to overwhelm a person’s choice. Then you have the question of suicide, period. Is there a right to suicide?

If you have had any involvement with someone who ended their life, you know the horrible ripping it does to the fabric of family and society. It is a terrible act of violence that does not affect just the one who ends their life; it changes everybody, forever. Of course it is most violent when done by the young, but who is to say it is benign when done by someone old or sick? This is not to blame the suicide—but it is to suggest that we ought never to encourage self-inflicted death, and always to put as many barriers in the way as we can, at any age and in any condition. In this we are voting not just for the life of the potential suicide, but for the life of the community he or she will leave behind in the wake of choice.

Ultimately, we face a fundamental clash of values in assisted suicide. Do we love life, all of life? Or do we love autonomy more? Life is what comes to us: we open our eyes on it each day, not knowing what great or awful things it will hold. We do not choose life, only how to respond to it. Autonomy, when held as the highest value, asserts that life is material for us to mold, or not to mold. We can turn off the game any time we like. In the final analysis, the choice of values is about God. Who rules? Someone or Something who gives life, and to whom we owe a response? Or Me, the Maker and Destroyer of Worlds?

People will commit suicide, with or without the assistance of others. We cannot help that, and they are our fellow human beings, to be treated with compassion.  I would never, however, pave the path for their self-inflicted death.

New Birth

January 14, 2015

The week after Christmas I got to hold my newborn grandson, Micah. He was less than a week old when I met him, and at that age babies don’t make eye contact. Yet Micah seemed to be looking around in every direction, trying to make sense of what he saw and heard and felt. After all, it was all new. Until a few days before he had never taken a breath, swallowed a mouthful of milk, seen a color or felt cold air on his skin. He had emerged from utter darkness to discover the pain and the joy of our world—and to begin to try to sort out what was going on. Good luck, Micah.

I was still swimming in the backwash of that reality when I had dinner with an old friend, Ginger. Something like a year ago she fell from a horse and smashed her head, fell into a coma, and very nearly died. This was the first time I had seen her since. She has recovered quite astonishingly, but—as she described it to me—she is still fearfully exploring her world, learning so many things that she once knew. Carrying on a dinner conversation, for example, has an element of novelty tinged with dangerous uncertainty. She cannot remember anything about her accident or the days that followed. She has, like Micah, the sensation of emerging from darkness, except she is discovering a world that she once knew.

How poorly I notice this amazing thing called life, at least compared to Ginger, who is finding out the fine points of daily living like a skater testing the ice. And though none of us remembers what Micah, and every baby, is experiencing, we all did once, and I suppose nothing we have experienced since has been so dramatic.

All of us will, I understand, one day enter a new world, where elements we remember (dimly?) have been transformed. I attended a funeral yesterday in which one of the relatives said that her mother, just that week, had looked forward to running again. She said it was difficult to imagine her 90-year-old mother running, but she had a photograph of her running down a Dutch sand dune as a child. That was what her mother imagined for herself.

Like Micah, like Ginger, we may be surprised and challenged as we emerge from darkness.

We Need Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014

I hate listening to the news these days, which is saying something because ordinarily I am a bit of a news junkie. I know I share this feeling. All the polls say that Americans are sick to death of ranting and blame. Yet they seem to increase, like nausea on a winding road.

It’s odd, because by some measures we are doing okay. The economy may not be great but it is much better than most. We survived the Great Recession. Crime is down. The flow of illegal immigrants is down. We aren’t fighting any major wars, and while we worry about events in Syria and Africa, they aren’t having much direct impact on us. Not yet, anyway.

And yet as a people we seem so bitterly unhappy, and preoccupied with blame.

I can trot out my favorite suspects and play the blame game with the best of them, but it’s monumentally unproductive. All sides have been ramping it up for years, maybe for decades, and all they seem to provide is more kvetching, more anger, more bitter denunciations.

I think it’s a spiritual disease. Not a political disease, one that can be solved by campaign reform or electoral victories for the good guys or constitutional jurisprudence or whatever your favorite recipe may be. I’m not denying there may be something in those recipes, but I don’t think the lack of them explains the sour mood and I doubt that the attaining of them will change this resentment. I think it’s a spiritual disease that we must all, one by one, family by family, group by group, deal with.

This coming holiday, Thanksgiving, is meant as medicine for this disease. It is only one day, intended for us to stop and be thankful. Deliberately. Thoughtfully. Prayerfully. Even joyfully. We really do have a lot for which we should be grateful.

Death and Disappearance

August 16, 2014

A friend of mine, Steve Morris, disappeared last week. He was in the Trinity Alps on my church’s annual men’s backpacking trip . On Saturday he and a few other men took a day hike to a nearby peak. On the way down, Steve got separated from the others. He never came into camp. Search parties have been looking ever since, using dogs, helicopters, GPS mapping. They scoured the area, which is not that large and not that rugged. (I’ve hiked there.) They found not a trace. Nothing. Not a footprint, not a water bottle, not a trail for dogs to follow. The sheriff called off the search this week, there being nowhere left to search.

It’s extremely unnerving. Steve is an experienced backpacker. He wasn’t despondent or depressed. Where has he gone? Why can’t they find some sign? Where is his body? Death itself is devastating to family and friends. Disappearance is worse. Earlier this year I read Rick Atkinson’s three-volume history of the western theater in WWII. He mentions how difficult it was for family and loved ones to deal with soldiers who went down in a ship or were shot down out of the air–who went missing. Family longed for some tangible proof of death, or at least a grave where they could mourn. Steve’s disappearance is worse by a factor of ten. No one saw him go. No one can say how he left.

I’m not sure I understand why disappearance is so upsetting, but I think it’s probably related to the insult that death poses in all its forms. It’s not just adolescents who expect to live forever. We all do. It’s really impossible to imagine that we will cease to be. Me! A known fact! My death seems as impossible as the moon blinking out one night.

At least when we see the body there’s some story of continuity we can tell ourselves. But it’s not a very convincing story. One moment, personality in full flower. The next, nothing but meat and bone. You are gone. That’s the aching surprise that greets anyone who watches a loved one die. They really are gone. That body left behind is not them, not much. It reminds you of them. But in reminding you, it reinforces the reality: they are no longer here, and you do not know where they have gone.

Is it easier to lose Robin Williams because we can still watch his funniest moments again and again on video? I don’t think so. I think it makes it harder. They remind us of him. They remind us that he will never again walk into a room.

Steve’s disappearance makes us feel this in a different, more bewildering way. We have nothing to mourn over, no focal point for our desolation. Truthfully, though, we never really do. Death obliterates all that in an instant. There is life, then there is no life. If you cannot believe in resurrection life, you are left with no reason to get up in the morning.

Escape Hatch to Sanity

July 11, 2014

Last week we got away for a few days to the eastern Sierra. It’s probably our favorite place, other than home. We had planned to backpack, but then the dog broke his leg and couldn’t hike, so we stayed in cabins and did day hikes. The weather was perfect, and to our surprise there was actually more snow on the mountains than we had seen last year in the same week. It’s good to get away! And it’s good to see the mountains.

These pictures are from the Little Lakes Valley, just up the road from an establishment named Pie in the Sky.

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photo 1 (1)

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Predicting the Future

November 21, 2013

I heard a quote in a radio interview yesterday:

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

It was said in the context of Silicon Valley innovations. But it applies to our families, communities, neighborhoods, churches, and a lot else.

Drive, Ambition, Zeal

October 21, 2013

I have been thinking about drive because I’ve lost some. Not that I’ve ever been a very driven character. I know people who are. And when I read biographies of famous people I’m often struck by their obsessive qualities. Some of those qualities are obviously problematic. Norman Mailer was driven to write but also to attract attention and to take women to bed. Vincent Van Gogh was driven to paint but also to quarrel.

More positively, though, obsession and ambition create focus and motivate work. Some people are born with talent, but very few successful careers are built on just talent. You have to work at it. Driven people work at it long after other people have taken a break, gone out to dinner, or gone to bed. I have no doubt I would be a better writer if I were more driven.

I don’t think I have it in me. At any rate I’ve never wanted to be like that, never saw it as a good thing. My father-in-law, a successful surgeon, sometimes cited three factors that made a recipe for success: ambition, participation, and hard work. I wasn’t fond of the first of those. I saw ambition as selfish. It meant thinking too much about yourself and how you could advance yourself. It went with self-importance.

With the benefit of a few years I have revised my views. I now see that ambition does not have to be selfish. I have little doubt that Mother Teresa was driven. So for Augustine, Luther, Francis. The Bible word is “zeal.” Jesus had zeal. So did Paul.

I don’t know many people who would put themselves in that category, though. Can you make yourself zealous? Can you manufacture drive? To a limited extent, I think you can. You can determine that your goals demand a certain level of intensity, and you can bind yourself to that intensity. However, I think most driven people are born that way, or maybe made that way by a certain kind of ambitious parent. Driven people don’t usually choose to be obsessive, it’s just the way they see the world. They can’t help themselves.

Here’s where it gets a little subtler, though. We usually think of drive and ambition relating to the public world–to politics, business, the arts, to fame and achievement. But I know mothers who have little interest in the public world, yet will drive themselves to the limit as mothers. In fact, I myself never had to decide to pour myself into fatherhood. It was simply the most engrossing thing I knew, and nothing would stand in my way. I was more driven to fatherhood than I ever was to my writing, to judge by my willingness to go on when exhausted.

Something of the idea of “calling” comes into play here. Someone who finds a “calling” just naturally devotes himself to the work–whether it is gardening, bird watching, coaching basketball, or fixing cars. Nobody has to remind him or her to work at it. The hard thing is to get such people to stop.

As I review my own life, I see that I had such a calling to write. I loved it, I never got enough of it, I was ever eager to do more and I was zealous to write well. The same with parenting. Yes, other people were more driven than I. But it’s relative, and I suppose my ambitions in those areas would rank fairly high.

I’m now in my sixties, and I can feel quite clearly that I do not have the drive I once did. I’m pretty sure it’s related to hormones. But it’s also related to circumstances. My kids are grown and married. It feels as though I’ve found my level as a writer–I’m probably not going to be published in The New Yorker or win the National Book Award. If I were a more driven character this might drive me to ever-greater efforts to transcend, but instead it leaves me just content to keep doing what I do and love to do. I don’t have much ambition any more. And I miss it.

I miss it like a gap in my teeth that my tongue keeps finding. A force in myself that I relied on–I just had to write–isn’t really there any more. It’s as though you sat down to breakfast one morning and found you didn’t have much of a taste for food. You still eat. But it’s something you choose to do, not something that comes automatically.

My mother, who had lots of sayings we repeat fondly, used to say that when you are young, your great temptation is sex; when you are middle-aged, your great temptation is money; and when you are old, your great temptation is grumbling. I’m thinking that grumbling comes in because life isn’t providing built-in gusto for you; you miss it, and you tend to think someone or something must be to blame.

If God is behind the aging process, as I think he must be, then he pays us a great compliment, disguised as a challenge. We have reached the stage of maturity–or should have–when we must provide our own motivation. We don’t find ourselves seized by a vocation. We aren’t driven any more. Not the longing for sex, nor money, nor fame, nor achievement, nor love makes us live and breathe. We have to decide what is worth pursuing, and do it.